FRANKFORT — The new priority for Kentucky farmers has a lot of history: Agriculture Commissioner James Comer announced Wednesday that his top agenda item for the next legislative session is hemp.
Comer, a Republican, told the Interim Joint Agriculture Committee that he will push for a strongly worded resolution by the General Assembly urging Washington to revise drug policy to allow U.S. industrial hemp cultivation.
"We just want the freedom to be able to grow a crop that we know will grow well in Kentucky," Comer said. Congress should "get out of the way and let the private sector create jobs in rural communities manufacturing this product."
He said if Congress acts this year, the first hemp seeds could be planted in Kentucky in spring 2014.
"If the United States Congress and the federal government gives us the permission to do this," Comer said. "We just want to pass the legislation, set an example to Congress. We are serious about this. ... Get out of our way. Let us do this in Kentucky. It will help farmers, and it will create jobs."
Earlier Wednesday, Comer reactivated the Kentucky Industrial Hemp Commission, which had been dormant for a decade. He was named chairman of the new commission, which includes Sen. John Schickel, R-Union, and Rep. Tom McKee, D-Cynthiana, University of Kentucky Agriculture College Dean Scott Smith, hemp activists, farmers and entrepreneurs.
The commission also received an injection of funding: David Bronner, president of Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps, gave $50,000, and U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Bowling Green, gave $50,000 from his political action committee. The money might be used for research or for consumer education efforts.
In August, Paul co-sponsored a bipartisan Senate bill to legalize hemp; it is a companion bill to one filed by his father, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, in the House. The issue has not gotten much traction in Washington, but hemp boosters hope to have a hearing next year in the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont. Hemp is big in Vermont; Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, co-sponsored Paul's hemp bill.
Mica Sims, spokeswoman for Rand Paul, said she believes industrial hemp could be a viable commodity for manufacturers and farmers in Kentucky.
Bronner and Sims both received a round of applause from lawmakers after Comer introduced them and revealed their financial commitments.
"We're not asking for any tax dollars. We're not asking for an tobacco settlement money," Comer told lawmakers.
Comer said there is widespread support throughout the state and in the business community for bringing back hemp.
"From my involvement traveling the state in my first 11 months, everybody is very excited about this and there are jobs waiting to be created," Comer said. He pointed out to the committee that he'd been in all their home counties and had been asked about hemp at every meeting.
But the issue doesn't have everybody on board. Maj. Anthony Terry of the Kentucky State Police said KSP Commissioner Rodney Brewer will be meeting with Comer to discuss whether or not the state police can support legislation. He said there are concerns about enforcing drug laws and distinguishing between marijuana and hemp.
"We have some reservations about some things. Obviously, trying to identify who is legally cultivating industrial hemp versus who is illegally cultivating marijuana is a problem," said Terry, who is in charge of the KSP's drug enforcement efforts. "Also, if someone arrested for a marijuana charge or a trafficking marijuana charge is going to say it's industrial hemp. ... We would have to test each and every sample. ... That runs into lots of dollars that have to be set aside for things like that."
Sen. David Givens, R-Greensburg, who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, also seemed skeptical.
"We're certainly open to the legislation. I have an unformed opinion on the issue," he said.
Comer lends credibility to the cause, he said. "But we need to make sure we don't over-market the benefits of this effort. Until the federal government legalizes the growth of hemp, there can be no hemp grown in the United States. We want also to not create unnecessary licensing for what may someday be a legal crop."
But he said the effort is gaining momentum because the potential market for hemp "can put Kentucky at the forefront ... That would be the upside of sending a clear signal to those producers of hemp-related products that Kentucky is open for business."
Comer said he hopes to address law enforcement's concerns. He will be speaking with sheriffs and county leaders at the Kentucky Association of Counties annual convention this month about potential hemp legislation.
"We worry about voting for things that are controversial. But the people of Kentucky know the difference between industrial hemp and that other plant," he said.
The Kentucky Department of Agriculture is prepared to regulate hemp production, he said. Legislation introduced last year also would have given the department oversight but never came up for a vote.
Comer also said that he and Paul are lobbying the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce to support the resolution.
"I believe it will be one of the issues they support in the session," Comer said.
He said Kentucky businesses and companies outside the state are lining up to get in on the ground floor of hemp cultivation.
"According to data released by the Canadian government, hemp production in Canada almost doubled in 2011, with total acreage growing to 38,828 acres," said Eric Steenstra, Hemp Industries Association executive director. "The HIA estimates the total retail value of hemp products sold in the U.S. at $452 million when including clothing, auto parts, building materials and various other products."
"I believe there will be a mad dash from the states to be the first state to get on board," Comer said. "We're going to have the infrastructure in place. We can really stand to gain a lot if we're the first state."
Bronner said Kentucky's enthusiasm and the efforts of Paul and Comer were what drew him to write a $50,000 check.
"With Sen. Rand Paul being this involved ... they want to put hemp in the ground in the spring in Kentucky ... we feel like this is an easy investment," Bronner said.
Janet Patton: (859) 231-3264. Twitter: @janetpattonhl.